This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in May. At Trinity Bible Chapel, that means it’s supposed to be communion Sunday—a day in which we come together as one body to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Sadly, this will be the second month in a row that we will not be able to participate in this means of grace together.
At our last in-person staff meeting in mid-March, our church staff discussed at length how we would put together our online worship services during COVID-19 assembly restrictions. We concluded that we would try and put together services each week that would feel as “normal” and familiar as possible. This is why every one of our online services so far have included a call to worship, song singing, announcements, a pastoral prayer, an online offering collection, a sermon, a benediction, and the singing of the doxology to close out the service. These online services are certainly not true gatherings of the church, but they are a temporary means by which souls can still be fed God’s Word and households can still be led in Lord’s Day worship. One of the things we did not discuss at this mid-March meeting, however, is what we would do on communion Sunday. But of course this topic inevitably came up at the end of March as we began to prepare for our Sunday service on April 5. And it was ultimately decided that, unlike other elements of our Sunday services, we cannot make the Lord’s Supper work in a virtual format.
Why not? Consider these six truths about communion:
1) It’s a picture of unity, not a reminder of separation.
“Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” – 1 Cor. 10:17
The word communion is made up of two latin words: communis unio, which literally translates as “common union.” Communion is a celebration of our union with God and with one another through our common faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s meant to be a visible picture of the unity and fellowship that we have with one another as believers. The “one bread” represents the “one body,” (1 Cor. 10:17). Thus, communion is a visible expression of our unity with one another.
Paul expressed his concern that when the Corinthians observed the Lord’s Supper, their separation, not their unity, was put on display (1 Cor. 11:18-19). It was a visible reminder of their division. If you observed a Corinthian communion service, you would visibly see some get drunk, some go hungry, and some impatiently partaking at different times (1 Cor. 11:20-21,33). The way in which they physically partook did not put their spiritual unity on display. This is why Paul said to them, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal…” (1 Corinthians 11:20).
With that in mind, what kind of a message does virtual communion—where individuals take communion alone in their homes—communicate? Physically speaking, it’s a picture of separation and isolation, not togetherness. Some will still argue, “Although we cannot physically be together, we are still spiritually united together in Christ. Therefore, we should still be able to celebrate it on our own in our homes.” The problem with this line of thinking is that it misses the point that the physical gathering for the Lord’s Supper is the picture of our spiritual unity. Our coming together as one body to the Lord’s table is the symbol of our spiritual union together. If there’s no physical coming together, there’s no symbol of unity.
2) It’s a corporate gathering, not a private practice.
“When you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” – 1 Cor. 11:17
“When you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.” – 1 Cor. 11:18
“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” – 1 Cor. 11:20
“When you come together to eat, wait for one another.” – 1 Cor. 11:33
“When you come together it will not be for judgment.” – 1 Cor. 11:34
Did you catch that? In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul repeats the phrase “when you come together” a total of five times! Clearly, the emphasis of this entire section of Scripture is that communion takes place in a gathered assembly of believers. He uses the plural form of “you” in each of these verses and uses plural pronouns throughout this whole section of Scripture to further underscore the togetherness of the Lord’s Supper—like “we” when he says “the cup of blessing we bless” and “the bread that we break,” (1 Cor. 10:16). In fact, Paul even makes a distinction between eating meals at home and eating the Lord’s Supper together as a church (1 Cor. 11:22,34). The church is clearly distinguished from the home in this passage.
Some might argue, “But the church is not a building or a location.” That is absolutely true! However, the word church comes from the Greek word ekklesia, which literally means “assembly.” Thayer’s Lexicon defines ekklesia as: “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.” The church is not a building, but it is an assembly of believers. It’s a gathering. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising to us that for Paul, the Lord’s Supper (an ordinance of the ekklesia) is reserved for a church assembly. It’s reserved for “when you come together.”
3) It’s a physical meal, not a virtual reality.
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” – 1 Cor. 11:23-25
A friend described the Lord’s Supper to me as “a family sitting down together at the same dinner table.” That statement beautifully captures the essence of the Lord’s Supper. It’s meant to be a shared physical meal. We physically eat. We physically drink. And we physically come together to the same table. They all go hand in hand. Paul even encouraged the Corinthians to “wait for one another,” presumably so they would all partake at the same time (1 Cor. 11:33). It’s meant to be a shared physical meal.
If we are physically alone in our homes when we partake, then can we really say that we’re sharing in the same meal together? If we are socially isolated at home, then are we really coming to the same table together? If we partake at different times throughout the day depending on when we watch the service, then are we really waiting for one another (1 Cor. 11:33)? If we all use different types of breads to eat, then are we really all “partaking of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17)? You see, there are essential physical aspects to this shared family meal that cannot be adequately duplicated in a virtual reality.
4) It’s a visible proclamation, not an unseen act.
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” – 1 Cor. 11:26
Just as baptism is a proclamation of the gospel (Romans 6:1-3), so also is the Lord’s Supper. The bread represents the broken body of Christ and the cup represents the shed blood of Christ. Thus, the observance of the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the Lord’s death (1 Cor. 11:26). When the church comes together and partakes, a message is powerfully proclaimed to all who are gathered. The sight of everyone eating the bread and drinking the cup is a proclamation to one another of the Lord’s death. This kind of proclamation simply cannot take place in private. Proclaiming the gospel in Scripture is always spoken of in terms of horizontal proclamation (see Mark 16:15). We proclaim the gospel to others. If there are no “others” physically present for us to proclaim it to as we privately eat and drink, then how can it be said to be a proclamation? I suppose perhaps you can have the whole church on a Zoom call such that every single person is visible at the same time on the screen when the elements are consumed. But in a church of our size, this is simply not possible. And if no one sees you eat or drink, then there’s no proclamation.
5) It’s a solemn examination, not a casual activity.
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat the body and drink of the cup.” – 1 Cor. 11:27-28
Communion Sundays are solemn and serious occasions. This is why, at our church, an elder “fences the table” before the elements are distributed and we partake together. Christians are to examine themselves in preparation. We are called to “discern the body,” (1 Cor. 11:29) and “judge ourselves,” (1 Cor 11:31) before partaking. The Scriptures warn us of partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (1 Cor. 11:27). If we do so, we will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Thus, the Lord’s Supper is a time of solemn reflection and examination that’s to be taken very seriously.
There are certain realities in a gathered setting that add to the solemnity of the Lord’s Supper. The presence of other members and elders brings a certain level of accountability that simply cannot be duplicated online. For example, those who are under church discipline are forbidden from taking part in the Lord’s Supper. The elders (and the membership) are mindful of who these people are and can keep watch during the Lord’s Supper. In an online environment, how can the elders continue to keep watch over the flock in this way (Acts 20:28)? What would prevent someone under church discipline from tuning in and taking part in a virtual communion service? Nobody would see them. Nobody would know. A virtual communion service, in general, creates a much more casual experience than in a gathered setting where elders and membership are physically present with one another.
6) It’s a sometimes-deadly ceremony, not a care-free celebration.
“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” – 1 Cor. 11:29-30
The consequences are grave for those who take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. Anyone who eats and drinks in an inappropriate way, eats and drinks judgement upon themselves (1 Cor. 11:29). In the Corinthian church, this is why many were “weak and ill” and some even “died,” (1 Cor. 11:30). Their flippant attitude towards communion led to the death of some of their members. If this tells us anything, it tells us that we ought to think very, very carefully about how we choose to observe this ordinance of the church.
Maybe the above arguments don’t fully convince you against virtual communion. But if they’ve left you with any uncertainty around its legitimacy, is it not wise to err on the side of caution given the severity of these potential judgments? And remember, the Bible does not actually say how often we ought to practice the Lord’s Supper. So we are certainly free to postpone communion services for a season until we are able to meet together again with the saints.
On Sunday, April 5, as I watched Pastor Jacob close our online service and announce that we would not be partaking in communion together, my eyes filled with tears. I think this is one of the aspects of our gatherings together that I miss the most. So don’t get me wrong, I understand the heart behind wanting to make virtual communion work. But I also understand how important our physical gathering is to the essence of what makes the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Supper. And for that reason and the others given in this blog, I cannot support virtual communion in good conscience.
I miss communion not only because I miss the personal means of sanctification that it is in my own life, but also because I miss eating and drinking alongside my brothers and sisters under the same roof. I miss looking around and seeing people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and ages all uniting together before the same table. And I miss that moment where we all simultaneously lift our hands to our mouths to eat and drink in unison together as a beautiful picture of our oneness. May the Lord haste the day when we can “do this” again.